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I’ve been reading almost all day today.  This is the first time I’ve done that in over a year.  I remember the list time I was reading all day was last summer–reading through some of the more appealing Pulitzer Prize winners.  I haven’t kept up that habit this summer, opting for the easier task of watching movies and going to weddings. And then there was the beach house, at this point a holy ground of my life.  I think if I ever thought I was going crazy that place would cure me.

While I was reading, I took a chance to smell my left hand’s fingertips.  They smelled like the handsoap in my bathroom–lavender, I think.  Something flowery like that, at least.  And for a moment I wish they smelled like cigarette or cigar smoke.  I wouldn’t take hookah.  Too sweet.  I could do without sweet right now.  I could do with bitter and dingy.   There was always something about cigarette smoke on the tips of my fingers.  I’d always smell for it in a shower, scrubbing all over my body but using my fingers as the litmus test.

When I smelled the right hand, it smelled clean like baby powder, I slap it on the back of my neck on warm days, and pretend it does anything for the sweat.  I used an spray can air freshener this year in my classroom, something called Powder Fresh.  It smelled exactly like baby powder.  I used to spray it at the floor around the kid who had just farted, and that always eased my worries–but that smell always smells like tabula rasa, indelibly blank and unbelievably clean, simple, and pure.

I wanted to smell used, and thought for a moment I’d go buy a pack of cigarettes and smoke one or three on the porch to ease my worries.  Then I’d take a shower and make sure my finger only barely smelled like impending cancer.

This is a strange thought because I’ve only ever smoked about a pack of cigarettes in my lifetime, and only a few more cigars.  And lately, I haven’t smoked anything but hookah and even that hasn’t been for months. That was my bargain with myself–just hookah, and I’d feel healthy.  Unfortunately, I did feel healthier.

So I thought about drinking, but I only have a bottle of nice wine, and all my other liquor is either sealed in my old bedroom in Tallahassee, sitting in a closed store in Philadelphia, or corked up and staying that way here in my month-old apartment.

Drinking alone and smoking.  Those are my ritualized habits of self-destruction and vice–the activities that will rot my brain and blacken my soul and one day probably send me straight to Lucifer himself for a one-on-one.  If only life would be so cruel to make those a little more popular, I think I’d be a happy man.  But drinking alone sounds a little alcoholic, so I’ve only had one drink this summer, outside the aforementioned weddings.  And a smoker has become such a pariah that even the places that promote public drinking have banned it.

So I was reading in bed, and have been all day, but that felt far too normal and banal and abominable.  I twitch my hands instead and think about ways to help my brain buzz into unfocused splendor.

I’m waiting for the school year to start, to start teaching again, but all I can really think about is the inevitable vice that stress will bring.  I guess I’m preparing my to-be-tarnished soul.  I would watch Jeopardy, or Wheel of Fortune, but I’ve decided to forgo cable this year, and don’t really miss it.  But the ritualized gambling of game shows would, by proxy, take a load off the feeling I have to do something unhealthy.

In waiting for the school year to begin, I’ve been making worksheets and copying out pages of workbooks for the students, to be on top of my game for the upcoming onslaught of inevitable stresses on my time management, patience, and professionalism.  I don’t know, but something about a 16-year-old high school freshman shouting obscenities at me or another adult seems to stretch my civility before 8 AM.  Instead, I wrote six quizzes, a three day project, and a homework sheet this morning before noon.  I hardly didn’t know what to do with myself.

So it goes–the most valuable lesson I’ve learned from my reading.  Thanks Kurt Vonnegut.

I mean, sure.  There are those wonderful themes about racism in To Kill a Mockingbird–but “to kill a mockingbird” doesn’t really sound right in any situation and doesn’t roll off the tongue so neatly as “so it goes.”  It’s become a motto of me, not in the original literary sense of accepting death, but in the sense that teenagers are always going to be teenagers, and teenagers do stupid things and they won’t be happy about the punishments of it.

But I won’t be happy about having to always be around the suck of it, and I won’t always be happy about doling out consequences, and I won’t be happy hearing the troubles of children who think so infantilely for having had such adult experiences, but most days they aren’t mollifying so I find myself stuck in another year that promises to be just as interesting as all the rest.

With students coming, I seem to be smelling my fingertips and wondering why they don’t smell like smoke, and I check up on my stock of liquor, and I think about Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune and the $100,000 Pyramid and even Match Game–for no good reason other than that seems to be the show I watched most when I was home in high school and had the time to flip the channel to the Game Show Network.

All the while I try to imagine nothing.

So it goes.

I bought Phoenix’s It’s Never Been Like That a year late.  When I graduated from college at the beginning of May, I found myself, for the first time, subletting my apartment for the summer, packing up all of my worldly possessions from college, and driving back home for the last time.   The album came out in 2006.   I picked it up in 2007, about one month before I flew to Philadelphia to begin my two year commitment to Teach for America.

It’s Never Been Like That was that perfect fresh blast of soft and pop music I needed for the summer.  I spent many nights driving down the canopy roads and thinking about the choices I had made up to that point, the choices that had gotten me to being back home in Tallahassee before I started a job I had no qualifications for, a job where people just told me, “It’s so tough.  You have no idea”–all the while Phoenix was playing in the background.  (So was MGMT.  But what self-respecting semi-hipster indie-fan didn’t have them spinning all summer long?)  I waited in Tallahassee for almost two months.

Look out--look at, look at me
Calm down calm down I said to myself this time

The nervousness of my impending future/disaster (…it’s so tough…) played in my head.  It reeled over and over again.  Possibility after awful possibility played in my head as I permuted the possibilities of the future my decisions had led me to the former here and now.

Where to go I had no idea about it
Most of the people do, they're only doing just fine
I don't wanna stay in place no more, see
Ain't doing well, well, well, I'm only doing just fine

TFA Induction Location

Then, all of a sudden, I was in Philadelphia.  Phoenix was still playing on my iPod, and I was desperately listening to anything to calm my nerves.  I was aloof in a place where people weren’t allowed to be aloof.  I was in TFA.  As a requirement you are asked to be social all the time, to participate, to be active, to meet people, to schmooze, to engage, to question, to discern, and to do a whole host of other verbs.  I walked in the crowd, headphones in.  No clue where I was going, but confident the group would get me to where I needed to go.

   Second to none, I wouldn't seriously get involved in a thing
   Bored of all the talking, you know it didn't change much
   I doubt your intentions are to make me feel any better today
   I even doubt tomorrow will be as easy as it was

I was ambivalent about TFA.  I didn’t exactly buy their sales pitch once I became a   member of their organization.  I doubted what they were really about, I didn’t want to get involved with them much, and it seemed as though the more I rejected them, the more they rejected me.  (NOTE:  This is only tacitly true.  Once I, later, began accepting them, they became more accepting of me.)

It started all in early September
When my godgiven little became a lot older

The rest, as I shall say, is history.  Last September came and went, and here I am a year older.  Phoenix is still with me.   And now they have a new album, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, to sustain me and relate to my life.  When the lead singer Mars hits it, he hits it right.

The question is, which lyrics will define this year?

Are his movies even worth it?

Are his movies even worth it?

I keep waffling on the issue of documentaries.  I hate the, except when I love them.  There seems to be little middle ground, based on my own personal reactions.

The Evidence for the Prosecution:

1.  Documentaries can be boring.  An Inconvenient Truth – This has to be the worst quality documentary made.  I don’t like getting political when I rate movies.  Even when it concerns politics I agree with.  You cannot give me enough money to say a poor movie is interesting when it isn’t.  This is why this type of review is worthless. A perfect review of this type of movie is only a political move.  This movie is boring, and not boring in the deliberately slow-paced manner, which I typically enjoy.  It’s just not good.  It is a glorified PowerPoint presentation.  It is surprising, shocking, and meant to be moving; on most counts it fails because it does not engage me.  At all.  This first type of documentary is all too common.  It’s the reason most documentaries go on the shelves of stores…and stay there.  No one’s interested in being bored.  The coffee table edition is more interesting.

2.  Documentaries as propaganda.  Triumph of the Will – Probably the best example of propagandism, the film by Leni Riefenstahl (spelled right the first time!) about the rigid professionalism, determination, and divinely ordained nature of the Third Reich I have had to watch three times for classes.  The first time was in high school, just a clip of the beginning.  The second for a class called The World between the Wars in college.  The third was for another college class: The History of Film: Part II.  I’ll admit.  The film isn’t that engaging, but it’s one hell of an interesting movie.  It was interesting all three times.  Not exactly documentary, incredibly staged and all factual, but technically documentary.  Because we know it is propaganda, its value as a piece of recorded history is lost.  As a piece of fiction, presenting the fictionalized version of a true event is great.  As a documentary is cannot be taken with much seriousness.

3.  Documentaries as a time waster.  The Up Documentaries – This set of documentaries is amazing.  Other people know this. You should know this.  If you don’t–watch them!  But be prepared to waste a lot of time.  The problem is this series is well edited, but takes footage from people’s lives when they are 7, and revisit their lives every seven years, from 7 to 42.   This is the straightest set of documentaries I have ever seen.  I think they are revealing, interesting, and engaging on every level.  But be prepared to use up about 10 hours of time watching these documentaries.  Which is the problem.  As documentaries are generally a labor of love for the directors, there is so much content that they do not want to sacrifice that they should.  Information that seems unnecessary, out of place, or useless is included.  Why?  Because the director understands why it fits it.  The director has hours of footage for every minute in the films.  Why not include a little extra?  But still, 10 hours?

The Evidence for the Defense:

1.  Documentaries can be really interesting. Spellbound – I will never be able to get past this documentary.  I think this is the first documentary I truly thought was amazing.  It was shameful to watch because I saw glimpses of how nerdy I was as a child, I saw the way parents drive their children just to win, and I saw how cruel children can be on themselves.  But mainly I just laughed out loud at the absurdity of the nerdiest thing on ESPN–the fierce competition for the title of Spelling Bee Champion.  This documentary you must watch.

2.  Documentaries as understanding.  Hoop Dreams – I knew when I started working with disadvantaged youth, the realities of their lives were disastrous.  The problem was I never thought about it in the long term.  Even after the first year, I never thought about where those students I taught would move after I was done teaching them how to use a comma with nonessential information.  This documentary reminded me of what issues they face: standardized test bias, social pressure, rough neighborhoods, limited resources, poor education, and institutionalized practices that look a lot like discrimination.  The scene where, after a student has made it to college, but lives in a house removed from the main campus where other athletes live–all black, all removed, all separate–is shocking.  These events are not from the sixties, or seventies.  They are from the ’90s.  They could be from today.   The movie made me understand, again, what issues really plague urban youth.

3.  Documentaries as entertainment.  Super Size Me – The movie was done to entertain.  Without the cameras there, would the man have undergone his personal experiment to eat McDonalds every meal of every day for a month?  Doubtful. It was only done to be filmed.  A staged documentary, just not staged like Triumph of the Will, so I’m willing to go with it.  This movie is just funny.  Interspersed with interesting facts about the fast food industry, and one man’s body decline because of the food he eats, the movie was made to demonstrate a point.  It demonstrates that people need to eat less fast food.  It makes it’s point.  I still eat fast food, and will always go for a Whataburger Honey Chicken breakfast sandwich whenever I get into a town that actually has a Whataburger.  But the movie did make its point.

Verdict:

The drawbacks of documentaries are just too much to risk.  I have trouble enough finding a good documentary.  The semi-interesting facts of the History channel work like 60 Minutes reports rather than historical research.  And while I wanted to be fair by presenting an even number of documentaries for both side, the fact of the matter is I could come up with several more documentaries that I did not enjoy, and had trouble coming up with three that I did enjoy.  The sheer enjoyment factor should win, but I won’t let it.

Documentaries do one thing, generally, very well: they tell a good story.  When they fail to do that they are awful.  A movie, after all, exists to tell a story.

All of the bonuses of movies, like cinematography, direction, editing, acting, etc. are lost in the necessity of a documentary.  Almost never will a documentary be able to demonstrate artistic merit and the factual entertainment that defines its genre.  Because I stake so much of what a movie is based on what a viewer can see, I must dismiss documentaries, generally speaking, as a failed genre.  There are just too few good documentaries to make the genre worthwhile.

Feel free to point out an excellent documentary.  I have a feeling that means I’m not going to get very many comments on this post.

I teach. Most of you, if anyone of you (whoever you are…I know you can’t see this but as I’m writing this I’m raising my eyebrows and sorta twisting my mouth and squinting my eyes to give the impression I’m a little skeptical there are people out there, and confused as to why any of you stumbled onto this disaster of a blog) know me, know that.  If you didn’t, now you do.

Not only do I teach, but I Teach For America (all big letter words these days).  And that’s how I ended up in Philadelphia.  Actually, the new leadership of my school asked the teachers there to write a statement of positionality about how they got to Boys’ Latin and why they are there.  The first round I was in a rather perfunctory mood and wrote the following:

  1. I was accepted to TFA to teach secondary English in Philadelpia.
  2. I was interviewed by and subsequently contracted to this school.
  3. I accepted, gladly.
  4. I will be finishing my second mandated TFA year this year, and hope to serve at least one more year.

Needless to say, some people in the leadership found that…shall we say, lacking a certain emotion.  So I wrote another one.  I don’t know why I did.  It was the above in paragraph format.  Four paragraphs.  Four actions.  They were underwhelmed.  I was annoyed.  So one morning I sat down and laid out the whole awful story of my life from playing in the ditches of Tallahassee, to the worst and best debacles of my teaching experience this past year.  They were happier.  And if they were happy, I was satisfied, and I got some weight off my chest.  All was/is well…I think.  Heather, if you’re reading this, let me know…

Work for the past year never really ended.  A week after the school year was done, I was working with TFA to help Induction for the new PhiladelphiaCamdenWilmingtonand90%chancethereisgoingtobeanothercityintheregionbynextyear.  The next week summer school started.  Right when summer school was just ending, freshman orientation started, and then I had two weeks.  Those two weeks were the longest vacation I had since exactly one year ago after Institute–remember that ridiculous teacher training camp.  It was awesome (kinda)!

Anyways, freshman orientation was miserable.  Wait, I take that back.  I was miserable during freshman orientation.  I figure it was a lot of things, but probably biggest was that I hadn’t taken “me” time in a year, and I need me time. (You know, the stay up late, drink all night, wake up late, eat out too often, watch too many movies, watch more TV, waste too much time, work way too little, pretend to do important things for an hour or so, but otherwise goof the day down the way you did–or should have done–in undergrad.)  That’s what I needed.  And I got it the past two weeks. Freshmen orientation was when I was apparently in the mood to write perfunctory lists.  I’m embarrassed.

However…

Refreshed and excited about the year I walked into work today feeling good, feeling like I wasn’t fooling myself, with the past behind me, a bit worried about having to teach through four hours without a pee break, happy that I have good co-workers, sad that I have an entirely new academic leadership team,  but confident in their abilities, more agreeable during PD sessions, less annoying to everyone in general, more focused on the idea of writing, confused about how really great movie get made, hoping I have the genius to pull one off one day, tired because I was still on undergrad time last night and around 1 AM thought I should go to bed, cursed myself the next morning (and by next morning I mean 5 hours later) for being so dimwitted, got out of bed, made myself a smoothie, rocked the earl grey, and got to school refreshed and excited about the year…

I could go on, but I probably shouldn’t.   So I’m not.

Now, the blog is definitely back.  Done and done.

There are many moments when I love my studnets.  There are also many moments when I don’t love my students.  Today was a day when I did not love my students as much as I could have.  It was mainly their (not there or they’re!) fault.  However I keep thinking to myself that I need to hold on to the nice and hilarious things they do because I really do appreciate them sometimes.  I love it when they ask personal questions like

  • After I said “I have to go home…and make dinner.” –Where’s your wife?  Why doesn’t she make you dinner? (I love working at an all boys school.  Keeping sexism alive one future man at a time.)
  • Did you get the belt from the gap? Because my cousin has a belt just like that and he spent a lot of money at gap… (No Comment.  But it was from gap…)
  • Where’s your girlfriend? (How do I respond…?)
  • Did you just fart sir? (Maybe…)
  • Where you from?  What’s it like?  Did you live on the beach? (Florida.  Like Philly, only more trees.  No.)
  • Can I buy your tie?  I’ll give you five dollars? (No.  I paid 30.) 
  • What do you put in your tea every day?  Why you always so happy in the morning? (I take this as a compliment.)
  • Why you gotta play us Mr. W? (“Huh.”) I mean…like every time we say something you gotta be smart with us and say something back..like, that’s not cool… (No, probably not.  But it makes my life fun.)
  • Why don’t you curse like all the other teachers?
  • Where you get your hair cut?
  • Mr. W got that “got me some” smile today! (“Inapproriate.  Sit down.”)

To which I generally say: “Off topic. Are there any serious questions? Moving on..”

I realize that I completely forgot to update about my weekend in Philly. I’m going to consider this my first weekend in Philly considering the first time I was there was with the fencing team which involved running up the Rocky steps, and then huddling in Temple for the rest of the weekend while our players slowly got cut round after round. So, I’m just going to start over…now…pretend I’ve never been.

Unlike that disastrous first time I flew to Paris all by myself and couldn’t figure how to do anything right and six hours later ended up at my apartment, this trip was comparatively uneventful. I landed, I picked up my luggage, and I got on the shuttle (only $10) and got to the hotel to nap before the really subpar pizza that TFA served arrived. I was out of it in a major way, considering my sleep schedule of 4AM-12PM was interrupted by this “professional” weekend. But, oh well, I got over it.

At the first night’s meet and greet the people were nice, and I like everyone I talked to the whole weekend. It was almost impossible to not make comparisons to everyone I knew from UF. There was a girl just like Blakely onl not as loud (I’m calling here Blakely Light), and there was someone, I kid you not, just like Jordan Loh with a vocabulary just as expansive and a posture just as politic. There was a dude who was a curious cross between Dan Hobbs (formerly obsessed with stocks) and Joe Schuessler (ran the Boston Marathon, placed in the top 70) which was weird considering last year’s living arrangements, but it got weirder because he ended up being the guy I was rooming with at the hotel, almost by accident.

And there were others but those people really stood out. While most people were from around the area, I was glad I wasn’t the only non-NorthEasterner. There was a dude from Cali, a girl from Texas, and there were even a few Wisconsonians around. (Joe: They have never heard of Mayville, or whore-icon, or Beaver Dam.) And there was a girl who went to Vandy, but she did not count because she doesn’t even drink sweet tea–I crime where I come from.

I got to interview with several different hiring committees, I got actually a lot more interviews than I was expecting, and I felt very blessed by the whole situation. Especially because everyone was so friendly and welcoming, and especially because I was the weirdo from Florida. After all the formality was done, I had dinner with MacKenzie which was great, because I was eating with exclusively TFA people, and it was just a little weird to be introduced not by my own name, but by “Hey, this is an ’08 here in Philly.” It felt so personal. But what was weird was people responded with “Oh, nice to meet you! I’m an ’07 so I’ll be around next year.”

This is going to be a weird culture to assimilate into next year. It’s also going to be weird because so many of these people have personality coming out their ears. But I figure I’ll manage somehow. Especially after this weekend I realize that not everyone is crazy. Just some of them. Or maybe this process makes one crazy.

Who knows. All I know is I’ve been praying to the Lord God Almighty a lot more than usual.